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Frequently Asked Questions: Basics of Hiring a Lawyer

Posted by attorney Jay Bodzin

The boundaries of legal representation: When does an attorney-client relationship begin? In theory, an attorney-client relationship is formed whenever a lawyer gives you legal advice. No papers need to be signed and no money needs to change hands. This is why we insist that no information on this website is meant to be legal advice, and no attorney-client relationship is formed just by reading this site. However, in general, you retain a lawyer by signing a Retainer Agreement, and the lawyer keeps working for you until the case is over, you fire them, or they withdraw. Good legal practice requires all major decisions to be documented in writing. Why won't my lawyer do what I say all the time? When you hire a lawyer, they work for you. However, a lawyer retains a measure of professional independence (much like a doctor, or any other professional). A lawyer cannot allow a client to make all the decisions about his or her case. Certain decisions can be made only by a client. These include whether to retain the lawyer; whether or not to initiate or settle a case; and whether the client should testify in court. A lawyer can give advice on these matters, but the final decision is always the client's. Other decisions must be made by the lawyer themselves. These include almost all procedural matters, including the type and form of documents presented to a court; the form and manner of legal argument; how to present evidence; and how to communicate with the court and opposing parties. A lawyer who does not retain control of these aspects of a case cannot provide adequate representation, and may have to withdraw if their client refuses to follow their advice. I think I know the law pretty well. There are just a few things I don't understand. Can I hire a lawyer but do most of the work myself? No. You can hire a lawyer whose representation is limited to a particular problem or task, if that limit is specified with particularity at the outset. However, once a lawyer undertakes to represent someone on an entire case, they are wholly responsible for it, and must handle the entire matter. Once I hire a lawyer, can I fire them? Yes. You have the right to choose your own counsel, which includes the right to fire your lawyer at any time. This does not change any payment you already may owe to the lawyer for work already done. Under certain very rare and limited circumstances, a court may require a lawyer to keep representing a client for a short time after they've been asked to withdraw. Can my lawyer stop working for me? Yes, under certain circumstances. A lawyer has the right to withdraw from a case as long as doing so will not cause the client "substantial prejudice" (i.e., serious harm). A lawyer may be able to withdraw even if prejudice will result, if the client fails to keep the lawyer apprised of their situation, lies, fails to pay their bill, fails to follow the lawyer's advice, or insists upon breaking the law (ORPC 1.16). A lawyer must withdraw if their client insists upon lying to a court or tribunal (ORPC 3.3).

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Filed under: Working with a lawyer